07 October 2013

Journalists' desires

I've seen several articles one telling scientists what journalists want, and why, and some going in to how.  Most recently http://www.scidev.net/global/communication/practical-guide/what-journalists-want-from-scientists-and-why.html It's all useful advice, and the one time I was allowed to speak to a journalist, I had a very good experience.

But, one thing very lacking in these articles is discussion of what it is that scientists may expect in return, why it is worth the scientist's time, and why it is worth the potential risk to professional standing and employment.

Advice: Journalists are on deadline -- so drop everything you're doing in order to answer their questions.
Q: Ok.  It's obvious why journalists want (us) scientists to drop what we're doing in order to answer their questions.  But what is the journalist promising in return?  Accurate quoting?  Many scientists have experienced the contrary.  Being quoted at all?  Not necessarily, we might not say anything quoteworthy in the journalist's opinion.  Chance to review the article prior to publication for accuracy?  Often refused on grounds of journalistic independence.

Advice: Answer all the journalist's questions, to ensure their understanding.
Q: Makes sense if we're going to talk to a journalist at all that we do what is needed for them to understand what we're saying.  But now it is a matter of not only dropping everything we're doing, but doing so for indefinitely long period.

Advice: Speak their language.  (Not English vs. Swahili so much, but glaciologist vs. ordinary citizen.)
Q: So not only do we drop everything we we're doing, for indefinite period, but even though we were interrupted in the middle of thinking hard about some obscure part of our field, we're to immediately shift mental gears from our frame for professional thinking to speaking to random citizens?  If I'm in the midst of writing a paper or proposal -- where I have to saturate in professional language -- it's going to be a while before I come down to being able to talk understandably to my wife (a bright person, but not a professional in my field so my reference for journalists; my wife understands this, journalists don't seem to.).

Even just in the context of speaking to a journalist, there are some costs and challenges to the scientist.  But let's go a little farther in what is happening for the scientist

  • Speaking to the journalist takes time away from: writing papers, writing proposals, preparing classes, teaching classes, analyzing data, building better instruments or models, feeding the animals, etc. -- all of which are needed for keeping the job.
  • If the journalist misquotes, misrepresents, etc. your meaning, those papers/proposals/etc. can encounter worse reviews from your peers, risking your job.
  • Even if correct, peers whose work you didn't mention (because you did pay attention to the 'speak their language' advice, and the work, though good and important, is too subtle for a quotable quote) can also react badly.
  • Employers may decide they didn't like how the article came out (regardless of whether the journalist did a good job) and reprisals follow.
  • Journalists often are not up front about what their article is about or for.  This makes it much harder to answer questions, as the question being asked is seldom the real question, and is not in the real context.**
** Journalists are accustomed to a fairly adversarial setting, in which if they said what they were actually looking for, they would never get it.  It may also be that the journalist doesn't know at the time they start the article what direction they're going to take.  The problem with either is that, combined with scientists attempting to speak more general language, once the journalists moves to their final, real context, the answer is now incorrect.  We (scientists) had to do some hard work to get to a quotable statement that was also accurate -- but answers live in their context.  Once you (journalists) change the context, things we were able to leave out of our quotable statement in the original context become important -- and render our answers inaccurate, or even false.

Or a different situation occurs.  I was once interviewed by a journalist for an article on running.  She presented it to me as being a fairly technical training plan article.  So we spent 30-60 minutes talking about training technicalities.  What the article actually was, was a lightweight survey of different types of running that one might do.  If she'd told me that in the first place, she could have gotten the 'quotable quotes' from me that she used in maybe 10 minutes, tops.  And I'd have been able to provide several more.

Beyond the costs suggested above, research careers also present few if any benefits to making journalists happy.
  • Nobody gets hired to a research job because of a good journalist interview they gave
  • Nobody gets promoted for one
  • Journalist interviews are not listed/listable on CVs
So, journalists, what are the benefits -- to the researcher -- of making you happy by following the advice in these 'what journalists want' articles?  Keeping in mind that there are definite costs to the scientist in the interaction.  And there are some risks, and no benefits, from the employer or peer side.  I have my own answers, which was why I spent the several hours (ultimately) talking to the reporter in that good experience.  But though I've seen many examples of journalists saying what scientists should do for journalists, I've seen them mention little reason why it's worth the costs and risks to the scientists.

via Twitter, Matt Shipman, @shiplives, offers:
A few answers to your Q: & &

The first, I think, really answers more why scientists should be on twitter et al., which is a different matter than journalist interviews.  The third involves an experiment.  But my read of it suggests that the conclusion that can be drawn is more limited than all journalists -- just those journalists who are publishing in high profile, among your peers, media outlets.  

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